Super Bowl LI on Sunday, Feb. 5 averaged 111.9 million viewers on Feb. 5 — making it the second most-watched game on record. However, viewership from the NFL’s 2016 season dropped significantly.
BYU biostatistics senior James Whitlock loved the NFL growing up. His preference switched to college football once he reached high school. Last year, he stopped watching the NFL altogether, even though his former favorite team, the Denver Broncos, won the Super Bowl.
Whitlock is not the only one who has lost interest in watching the NFL. NFL ratings and viewership have consistently dropped for multiple games each week compared to last year, according to Sports Media Watch.
By November, Monday Night Football ratings were down 24 percent, Thursday Night Football was down 18 percent and Sunday Night Football was down 19 percent.
There’s no denying the NFL had a ratings problem in 2016.
Whitlock’s decision to stop watching the NFL was mostly a religious one because he doesn’t want to watch football on Sundays. But he said other factors also played into his declining interest.
“I’ve noticed that the NFL is more like a business that is trying to make money,” Whitlock said. “I feel like a lot of effort and sportsmanship is taken out of (the games).”
BYU broadcast journalism graduate Mitchell Marshall works as a play-by-play announcer for many BYU sports. He is passionate about all sports, but said he loves the NFL the most.
“The NFL is king. They drive money more than any other league, and they do it with less games which means less tickets sold,” Marshall said. “And it’s doing that despite losing viewership, so it’s pretty incredible.”
BYU English senior Jordan Dalebout grew up in Texas and loves following the NFL despite declining viewership.
“Where I grew up football has a mind of its own,” Dalebout said. “It’s massive.”
BYU students react to NFL viewership and express their opinions about NFL games. (Video by Ryan Turner. Music from Bensound.com)
Marshall said up until the end of the regular season, ratings were down across all four networks: CBS, FOX, ESPN and NBC.
The pace of the game is one factor playing into the NFL’s declining viewership and ratings, according to Marshall. The games average only 11 minutes of actual playing time, according to SportsGrid.
Marshall said older fans do not like all the rules that favor offenses and slow the game down.
“There are a lot of timeouts and the NFL isn’t looking for ways to speed the game up,” Marshall said. “There’s a lot of dead time.”
BYUTV’s Senior Coordinating Producer and former ESPN producer Mikel Minor said NFL.com’s official fantasy football league is another factor contributing to declining viewership. He said fans flip through channels to see all the games their fantasy players are in instead of watching a single game consistently.
“That’s a scenario that we didn’t really see and wasn’t even present 10 years ago,” Minor said.
Even though Minor said he believes fantasy football is hurting NFL viewership, he also said the NFL accommodates viewer preferences by providing fantasy statistics on their games.
BYU broadcast journalism graduate Brandon Crow also does play-by-play announcing for BYU sports. He said there has always been a second conversation, or underlying narrative, about sports organizations throughout the history of sports.
Crow said the NFL’s second conversation has been about several different topics. These conversations have included concussions, domestic abuse, protests and Roger Goodell’s disciplinary action against players.
“I feel like (the NFL) is so saturated with (these conversations) that it has put off a huge negative vibe about the sport in general,” Crow said. “It’s just a big black cloud hanging over (the NFL) right now.”
One of the controversial conversations of the past NFL season revolved around San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem.
In late October 2016, 913 adults were interviewed in a breitbart.com poll about the NFL viewership decline. Twenty-three percent said they watched fewer NFL games this year. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed said the biggest reason they watched fewer games was due to the national anthem protests.
Minor said he believes the protests haven’t truly affected NFL viewership. He said this number only represents people who are opposed to the protests.
“The majority is probably ambivalent about (the protests) especially regarding viewing habits,” Minor said.
BYU broadcast journalism graduate Chelsea Fairbourn said the NFL needs to find ways to change its branding and marketing. She said one way they can improve the popularity of the NFL is to look at social media strategy.
“Is it that important on social media that they control all of the GIFs and don’t allow individual teams to do so?” Fairbourn said.
The NFL should also look at other rules and policies it has implemented that drag the sports popularity down, according to Fairbourn.
“The more bad publicity they get, the less people are going to want to interact and engage in them,” Fairbourn said. “They’re going to steer clear of something that is not appealing to them.”
Crow said the players’ negative opinions of Goodell have affected viewership of the NFL, because the players’ opinions are broadcast and Goodell does not typically respond through the media.
Goodell needs to own his mistakes and be more consistent, according to Crow.
“I feel like that will never happen,” Crow said. “There’s too much ego and pride in the way for that to happen.”
“I don’t think that Goodell is a horrible monster like people make him out to be, but I think that having a limit on how long a commissioner should have that job would be good,” Marshall said.
Marshall said he thinks the NFL will always have a large following. However, he agrees the organization must adjust to the changing demographic of their fans.
“We have shorter attention spans and we access information differently,” Marshall said. “People don’t watch TV linearly as they used to.”
Marshall said ratings and television viewership may continue to go down for the NFL, but it must find new ways to engage its fans with their product. Fairbourn said above all, NFL leaders must listen to their fans.
“I think the biggest thing is to get to the root of your fandom,” Fairbourn said.